Courageous conversations: Mastering difficult conversations

Two people on a mountain top. One is helping the other reach the summit, representing courageous conversations.

In our earlier blog ‘Managing conflict in the workplace: a practical guide’ we looked at the ins and outs of identifying different types of conflicts and how to handle them depending on their unique context. Now we’re turning the spotlight on challenging conversations, or as we at VTT refer to them ‘Courageous Conversations’.

Even though difficult conversations can be uncomfortable in the short term, especially when there are strong emotions involved, it is important to keep the long-term benefits in mind. When handled well, these conversations can assist in resolving issues that won’t simply disappear on their own – in fact it can be quite the opposite. Handled badly, challenging conversations can be the impetus for many ensuing conflicts.

When difficult conversations are managed effectively, we can ensure that the issue under discussion doesn’t ever develop into a more serious conflict.

Why we avoid difficult conversations?

In general, unresolved issues can negatively impact our health, well-being, and relationships.  Unfortunately, many people overestimate the risk of addressing these issues and as a result, avoid having difficult conversations altogether.

There is often a fear that speaking up will hurt the other party or the relationship that we have with them. However, the reality is that our ability to build a strong working relationship with others depends on our willingness to effectively convey our concerns and listen to those of the other party to better understand their point of view.

The benefits of challenging conversations

Here’s a look at some of the advantages of having these difficult conversations:

  •     The opportunity to express your concerns.
  •     Gain a new perspective.
  •     Learn new previously unexplored information about the issue.
  •     Clear up any misunderstandings.
  •     Strengthen relationships and deepen levels of trust.
  •     An opportunity for self-development and to enhance your communication skills.

But that doesn’t mean we should look for any opportunity to have these types of conversations.

When do we initiate a challenging conversation?

The social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, in his popular book ‘The magic of dialogue’, sets out the 3 factors that if met merit having a challenging conversation:

  1.     There’s a difference of opinion.
  2.     The theme of the disagreement is of importance.
  3.     There’s an emotionally charged aspect to the issue.

In the workplace, some common reasons why these conversations might occur are because: a manager needs to speak to their team member about their poor performance; an employee may wish to communicate to their manager that they’re unable to meet a project deadline, or even due to an employee not feeling supported by a fellow team member.

A framework for courageous conversations

So, we may have identified an issue that meets Yankelovich’s requirements, but how do we actually go about having this courageous conversation? Follow our steps below to have a less stressful and more effective conversation regardless of the issue at hand:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
  2. Initiating the conversation
  3. Dialogue
  4. Next steps

We explore each of these steps in detail below.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

When it comes to difficult conversations preparation is everything. Take time to consider your intentions for this conversation. What objectives do you want to accomplish? and importantly, what do you want for the other party and for your relationship with them? Consider what they could positively gain from the conversation and how you might be able to support them.

It can be particularly helpful to develop a ‘Statement of Intent’ which can help you steer the conversation back on track if at any point it gets derailed. An example of a statement of intent could be ‘I want to help X get back to the performance they were delivering last January’

2. Initiating the conversation

When should we have these conversations? – the simple answer is there’s never a perfect time. However, we should arrange for the conversation to be 1:1 (whether in person or via a video conferencing platform) and allow sufficient time so that we can comfortably cover the issue and discuss the next steps.

3. Dialogue

According to professional negotiator Mark Gerzon’s book ‘Leading Through Conflict,’ we can divide our conversations into two distinct types: dialogues and debates. Whereas debates consist of both parties arguing their differing points of view, dialogues are rather a discussion where each party seeks to understand the other.

When you use the dialogue approach in difficult conversations, the other person feels heard, we have the opportunity to understand their position, and we may learn something new that might help us with the issue.

You can maintain a dialogue by asking open questions, ensuring the other party of your positive intent, and agreeing on a solution together, whereby each party makes a commitment to the other.

4. Next steps

Arrange to have a follow-up meeting where you can check in on agreed milestones and ask:

  •     Has my support been helpful?
  •     What can I do to support you further?

Final thoughts

Differences of opinion and misunderstandings are bound to occur in any workplace. Often, the best way to solve our differences is to have a courageous conversation. Not only shouldn’t we shy away from them but we should realise that having these conversations can have a positive impact on own self-development and on our relationships with others.

Take time to consider if there are any issues that are bothering you at work and whether they merit having an intentional conversation. Plan your statement of intent, the objectives for yourself and the other party and schedule a time to have your dialogue when appropriate – just remember there’s no ideal time.

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